The bustle of participation

There are disturbing parallels between the world Samuel Johnson describes and our use of the new gen

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I’ve been up for an hour. In that time I’ve updated my Facebook status and dismissed various invitations to become a Zombie or share virtual fish or garden plants, sent a few Tweets, looked through the various blog postings that Bloglines has picked up from the RSS feeds I subscribe to, added new services to Friendfeed and replied to a dozen emails.

I’ve been far too busy to do any work, massaging my online presence, keeping up to date with the chatter and making my modest – fewer than 140 characters on Twitter – contributions to online discussions,
And in the midst of this hard work I remembered one of my favourite essays, written in 1759 by Samuel Johnson and published in ‘The Idler’.

Titled The Bustle of Idleness it begins: "There is no kind of idleness, by which we are so easily seduced, as that which dignifies itself by the appearance of business; and, by making the loiterer imagine that he has something to do which must not be neglected, keeps him in perpetual agitation, and hurries him rapidly from place to place."

Johnson satirises those who indulge in ‘motion without labour’ and ‘employment without solicitude’, calling them ‘imitators of action’ and noting that they ‘never appear more ridiculous than in the distress which they imagine themselves to feel from some accidental interruption of those empty pursuits’.

Any resemblance between the targets of Johnson’s sarcasm and the ranks of Twitter users who protest loudly when the service suffers growth pains and falls over are, of course, entirely in the mind of the reader.

I’d never dream of comparing Mike Arrington to Johnson’s ‘Jack Tulip’ or pointing out the similarities between Robert Scoble and ‘Monsieur Le Noir’, ‘a man who, without property or importance in any corner of the earth knows well that nothing can be done or said by him which can produce any effect but that of laughter, that he can neither hasten nor retard good or evil, that his joys and sorrows have scarcely any partakers’.

But it does seem that there are disturbing parallels between the world Johnson describes and our use of the new generation of social tools, and perhaps a danger that so much time will be spent bustling around the internet that the serious time needed to think, and study, and create, will be diminished.

I know that I’ve spent less time reading books – real, printed books which make their argument over thousands of words and hundreds of pages – in the last six months than I feel happy with, and while Twitter and other tools give me a sense of engagement with my online friends and the wider community, my intellectual life is out of balance.

I’m correcting it at the moment. I read Clay Shirky’s ‘Here Comes Everybody’ this week and am well into Jonathan Zittrain’s ‘The Future of the Internet’. And I’ve picked up Iain M Banks’ ‘Matter’ again and will finish it this week.

And when I sit down this evening in front of my computer, with Twhirl running in the background to pick up any incoming tweets and allow me to reply, Seesmic in my web browser to let me make short videos and the panoply of websites, emails, RSS feeds and instant messaging there to tie me into the great online community, I’ll bear ‘Tom Restless’ in mind before I post, comment or tweet.

As Johnson puts it: "Tom has long had a mind to be a man of knowledge, but he does not care to spend much time among authors; for he is of opinion that few books deserve the labour of perusal, that they give the mind an unfashionable cast, and destroy that freedom of thought, and easiness of manners, indispensably requisite to acceptance in the world."

Tom has, therefore, found another way to wisdom. When he rises he goes into a coffee-house, where he creeps so near to men whom he takes to be reasoners, as to hear their discourse, and endeavours to remember something which, when it has been strained through Tom's head, is so near to nothing, that what it once was cannot be discovered. This he carries round from friend to friend through a circle of visits, till, hearing what each says upon the question, he becomes able at dinner to say a little himself; and, as every great genius relaxes himself among his inferiors, meets with some who wonder how so young a man can talk so wisely.

At night he has a new feast prepared for his intellects; he always runs to a disputing society, or a speaking club, where he half hears what, if he had heard the whole, be would but half understand; goes home pleased with the consciousness of a day well spent, lies down full of ideas, and rises in the morning empty as before.

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Johnson’s essay is online at http://www.gutenberg.org/files/12050/12050-8.txt, in Idler 48, with the title The bustle of idleness described and ridiculed. You can download a printable version along with two other Johnson essays as a printable eBook from Diffusion: http://diffusion.org.uk/?p=309